Nominee to lead park service has deep roots in West

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 19, 2009 

WASHINGTON — As superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park outside Seattle, Jon Jarvis twice climbed the 14,411-foot peak. As director of the National Park Service's Pacific West Region, he ordered that his 56 parks be carbon neutral by 2016, when the agency celebrates its centennial.

He has tangled with a California senator over oyster farming in a national seashore and, according to colleagues, jeopardized his career by opposing a Bush administration management plan to commercialize the parks and emphasize recreation over conservation.

During his 30 years in the National Park Service, starting as a ranger, he championed the effort to transform the "scenery management" approach of "old buffalo" superintendents into one where protecting natural and cultural resources is as important as attracting tourists.

In nominating Jarvis as director of the National Park Service, President Barack Obama selected someone who appears to have few critics.

"We couldn't have a better person," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over the nomination.

If confirmed by the Senate, Jarvis will head an agency that faces troubling operational budget shortfalls, a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog, low employee morale and fundamental questions about its future.

The spotlight will intensify this fall when a six-part documentary on the parks by filmmaker Ken Burns airs and an independent commission composed of former senators, House members, governors, scientists, academics and business leaders releases its vision for the parks in the 21st century.

The agency oversees nearly 400 national parks, monuments, battlefields, historic sites, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails covering 84 million acres, in every state but Delaware. They range from the Grand Canyon to the Statue of Liberty and John Muir's house to the White House.

Jarvis has been ordered not to speak to reporters until after he is confirmed.

But those who have worked with Jarvis say they can think of no more qualified person to head the park service.

"It was an inspired choice," said Bob Barbee, a former superintendent of Yellowstone National Park and regional director of the parks in Alaska, who said Jarvis has a "complete understanding of the values the parks represent" but is "no shrinking violet."

A trained biologist, Jarvis moved up through the ranks, including stints as chief of natural and cultural resources at North Cascades National Parks in Washington state, and superintendent at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, at Mount Rainier and at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska.

At Mount Rainier between 1999 and 2001, he wrote a management plan that included broad strategic goals and improvements that needed to be made immediately. His successors say the plan has aged well. Jarvis was also the first superintendent to climb Mount Rainier in 40 years. The second time he tried for the summit, his 16-year-old daughter convinced him to keep going when the climbing party had halted just below the summit in nasty weather, said Dave Uberuaga, who is now superintendent at Yellowstone National Park but as Jarvis' deputy at Mount Rainier accompanied him on both summit climbs.

"To have the best person rise to director is all you could ask for," said Uberuaga.

As superintendent at Craters of the Moon, Jarvis had to deal with local ranchers, the Bureau of Land Management, rural communities and even the Department of Energy, which has a nearby nuclear site. At Wrangell-St. Elias, the world's largest park with more than 1 million acres of private holdings within its boundaries, he dealt with such issues as mining, aircraft and Native American subsistence hunting and fishing rights.

But Jarvis knows about more than just the West's "crown jewel" parks. As head of the Pacific West Region, Jarvis has overseen the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor; the Alcatraz National Historic Site in San Francisco Bay; the Manzanar National Historic Site in California's Sierra Nevada, site of an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II; the Eugene O'Neil National Historic Site in northern California and the Whitman Mission National Historic site in eastern Washington.

"He realizes it is more than just the big parks in the West," said Sean Smith, Northwest regional policy director for the National Parks Conservation Association in Seattle. "He has a strong focus on preserving natural and cultural resources."

Smith and others also described Jarvis as "politically adept."

Jarvis has been working to negotiate sensitive land swaps between the Olympic National Park and the Hoh and Quileute tribes involving areas, including a school, that are in a tsunami zone. He has convinced park service headquarters staff to make the removal of two dams on the Elwha River adjacent to the Olympia National Park a priority and negotiated with local tribes along with state and local officials.

The Elwha River project, aimed at restoring a legendary salmon run, would be the second largest park service restoration project ever behind only the Everglades. Among other things, fish below the dams on the lower river will have to be relocated to other rivers so they don't suffocate on the silt released when the dams are removed.

Jarvis is no stranger to Washington, D.C.

He spent several months on detail to Cantwell's Senate office in 2001, understands the inner working of the park service's headquarters and has several powerful patrons on Capitol Hill, including Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who as chairman of the House interior appropriations subcommittee has control over the park services' $3 billion annual budget.

"He's a star," said Dicks, who lobbied the White House for Jarvis' appointment. "This is the one he needed."

When the Bush administration sought to make significant changes in the park service's management plan to open the door to commercialization and upgrade the focus on the parks as vacation destinations at the likely expense of natural and cultural resources, Jarvis pushed back forcefully.

"He put his position at risk," said Uberuaga. "It was one you needed to fall on your sword for, and he did."

"He pushed the envelope on this, and the previous administration didn't like it," said Smith of National Parks Conservation Association.

Jarvis angered Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., earlier this year over an expiring lease for an oyster farming operation at Point Reyes National Seashore, north of San Francisco. Feinstein wants the lease extended.

In a May letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Feinstein said she found park service actions "troubling and unacceptable" in light of a National Research Council report that said the park had exaggerated the negative effects of the farm.

Jarvis subsequently apologized, but he denied the park service had deliberately misrepresented any data.

Feinstein's office did not return a phone call seeking comment. Feinstein chairs the appropriations subcommittee in the Senate that oversees the park service.

Dicks said the White House was well aware of the flap, but nominated Jarvis anyway.

"This guy is straight and honest," Dicks said.

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